SoulTrain

“Great News! You Don’t Have Cancer!”

Posted on: Monday, February 12th, 2018
Posted in: SoulTrain | 6 comments

So said Dr. Finger when he burst into the room as he flipped me a print-out of test results that had otherwise been kept secret. “Get-T-F-Outa-Here!” I shouted in awe as I threw a Town & Country magazine across the room. For 6 weeks, they had directed me through a new regimen of tests, scans, and procedures chasing 2 kinds of possible cancer that have nothing to do with the previous one. Not all clues along the way suggested we were headed toward this happy conclusion.

I know what you’re wondering. Why was Kirk reading Town & Country? Well, just to set the record straight, I hadn’t seen one in years, and it carried my shaky mind away to memories of comfortable homes and splendid dinners (or at least coffee tables). That said, the magazine may have been upside-down for all I know—although I did notice the models keep getting younger.

  • “Cancer Again: The Sucky Sequel”

I was prepared enough for bad news that the above headline was already mosh-pitting in my head. And I’d reverted to the ABCs of considering scenarios. Like, I alerted Support Squad A. Obligations and travel arrangements had a Plan B. And if drafted, I was ready to jump back into the C zone, like a soldier re-enlisting for battle, in hopes that we might mop this sucker up by the 4th of July in time to move on to the important things, like floating.

Now, some might dub that pessimism. But PCSD does that to you. So does the pursuit of fearlessness, which features rigorous workouts in realism: Seeing and accepting all possibilities, even the ones you don’t like. It’s quite empowering, really—moreso than well-meaning sideliners who chirp, “Just stay positive!”

  • Pains in the ass

Women worry about breast cancer. Men fear the prostate. Both are common, and the male problem runs in my gene pool like good looks. So when my “blood work” in December showed some new, elevated numbers—perhaps caused by friendly fire from all the treatments—I had to board the P Train toward exams and destinations unknown.

Along the way, the search thickened when one scan unexpectedly discovered something concerning in my sacrum. I’ve learned to become concerned when doctors say concerning (though I’d never heard concerning and sacrum used in the same sentence before). Prostate is bad enough. But can’t we leave my sacred sacrum out of this? It didn’t help that a friend of mine, as we speak, has both prostate and spinal cancer. Stage 4. He put off seeing a doctor. The Bad Thing spread. He’s going to make it—I believe. But first he’ll go through hell and back again.

In my case, I was fairly fearless about bone cancer. There are many reasons, but the most intuitive one is that my back suffers from a condition that, if I were a noted doctor, I’d name “BackF*ck.”I achieved this condition through a lifetime of combative sports, risky activities, nasty accidents, gardening abuse, and of course, genetics. (When all else fails, blame your kinfolk.) Like many of us, I live with this annoyance well enough and work to keep it in check.

Fortunately, my hunch was right. (!!!) So when Dr. Finger explained that the back  issue was not cancer but asked, “Hey, did you know you broke your tailbone?,” I could only shrug. “No, but I’m not surprised. But, may I ask, is it…concerning?” “Naaah,” he answered, “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Fun fact: When you’re dealing with doctors about cancer, you could come in carrying the arm you just severed off and they’d say, “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

  • “This might sting a little bit…”

That’s another phrase doctors like. It’s code for, “This might make you scream.” Nonetheless, when it came time to strategize the prostate biopsy, I chose to be awake. How could a stupid, short procedure I’d been afraid of all my life be a bigger pain in the ass than what I’ve been through? And the protracted process of knock-out surgery? S0 tedious (a different kind of pain in the ass).

Now, my guess is that very few writers have gotten rich and fabulous writing about prostate biopsies. And most folks probably don’t want to hear about it. So instead, let’s talk about animals. Everyone loves animals, right? Like, the remarkable porcupine. If I had to choose an animal that the procedure reminded me of, I’d definitely go with porcupine.

So if a porcupine should cross your path and need to enter your body, take my advice: Take valium. Scarf them like Sweet Tarts. You won’t scream as loud and you’ll enjoy a nice nap later—at about the time the porcupine retreats back to his proper hole, wherever that is.

  • Staring at the ants

Throughout these weeks, I kept the Zen poem, Hokasai Says, close-at-hand. It states:

He says it doesn’t matter if you draw,
or write books. It doesn’t matter
if you saw wood or catch fish.
It doesn’t matter if you sit at home
and stare at the ants on your veranda…

(Spoiler alert: The stanza ends with, “It matters that you care.”) Funnily enough, a Minnesota-dystopian thing happened: Disgusting, nuisance, winter ants left the veranda and moved into my house. This I learned when I awoke one morning and they had carried me down the stairs and were trying to shove me into their little ant-hole.

They’ve also invaded the cat’s food (no matter where you move it). The trail mix. The kitchen counter. The sink. And yes, even the Triscuits. So I’m like, screw the war on cancer: I’m at war with the ants! Hokasai might disapprove. But he’s been dead for centuries. And if he’d had a chance to snack on Rye and Caraway Seed Triscuits with avocado, smoked salmon, sweet-hot mustard and capers, I think he’d understand.

I must confess: Sometimes, I smash them. With my fist. It takes effort; they’re fierce, tough buggers. Earlier today, one blew me away. He (I’m pretty sure it was a he) was carrying another ant, a dead one. At full speed. I pounded him anyway. But it only half-worked. So you know what this half-smashed ant did? Smashed Ant just flipped me off and kept right on carrying his dead cousin toward Mount Triscuit.

Now that is fearlessness! Now that is strength! Now that is a desperate metaphor for what a guy must do when, not nine months after kicking cancer’s ass, the healthcare team decides we need to run six weeks of new tests for two other kinds of cancer.

  • The comedy continues

Dr. Fingers was a riot. Doctors are so much funnier when they bring good news. “We’ll need to see you occasionally,” he said, “about every six months.” “Bummer,” I responded as we shook on it, “You have such damn big hands.” He slayed me with a ready comeback: “Well, if you’re really lucky, I won’t order a second opinion” as he held up two fingers.

Oh, this guy is good. I’m definitely considering taking him on my cancer comedy tour as a warm-up act.

Hokasai says,

Every one of us is frightened.
He says every one of us has to find
a way to live with fear.

Wise man, that Hokasai. Fearlessness don’t come easy, but, like so many intentions, maybe it becomes easier with practice. And perspective. Like this: I had lunch with a friend last week who showed up uncharacteristically out of sorts. So I asked about it.

Turns out that, right before our meeting, she had visited a close friend who’s son had taken his own life the day before. At age 20. I have no idea, no idea, how one carries on after that.

In comparison, going through some unpleasant tests and a health scare is a blessing.

Fearlessness. I got this. (Right, Hokasai?)

Thanks for caring…

*kh

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Waiting, Waiting

Posted on: Monday, January 1st, 2018
Posted in: SoulTrain | 2 comments

Returning for scans and tests brings a memory flood that’s like a dam breaking in the brain. A dam one’s worked damn hard to build. Revisionist history morphs into Fake Truths. It wasn’t so bad becomes OMG! THIS! AGAIN! 

  • Hurry up and hack

Test day(s) and the prep before can max the nerves. This time, fresh snow turned roads and knuckles white—and ensured that everything everywhere ran late. This made everyone stressed. They were already sick (beyond their job angst and infirmities) and hacking like suffering ducks, everyone: Staffers, nurses, patients, relatives, and the omnipresent Waiting Room Nomads who have no obvious reason for being there.

So I must ask: Why so some patients bring a family reunion to their appointments? God only knows. But they do.

The check-in line? Gridlock. After all, one kindly lady can only do so much. And it’s hard to collect info from folks having hack attacks. Language interpretations take time, too. And then there are the irrelevant questions they ask, like, “What’s the temperature in Moscow?” and “What was Richard Nixon’s sperm count when impeached?” Some patients just don’t have the answers. In any language.

“When did you retire?” the  receptionist asked one fossilized man attached to various machines. After much consideration, he answered, “Two thousand seventy.”  The clerk cocked her head and replied, “Okay, just have a chair, honey. It’ll be a while, honey.” He didn’t move. Time passed. So, this being the era of #metoo caution and all, she asked, “Does it bother you when I call you ‘Honey?’” That perked him way up, “Who doesn’t like being called ‘Honey?’” And they laughed—loud, and long, and clear! I actually thought they might dance a little jig. The sound was so out-of-place that the waiting room went silent for a moment.

Finally, my turn! “Hi. Name’s Horsted. But you can call me honey. That sounds really good right about now.” Awkward pause, irked stare. “Okay, hon. Let’s just slow down here.” “Hon?” I replied, half insulted. “Just ‘Hon?’ Please! I want pure “Honey!” “Okay, fine; you’re honey. You need some scans. Right? You know we’re running late here on acccounta the snow and half the staff is out sick as dogs. I don’t feel so good myself. Have a seat, hon. Please. Now.”

Thus ended our brief romance. But it was sweet while it lasted.

  • The comforting sound of your own name

While awaiting my tests from infectious technicians, I read three papers, fought off flying phlegm, and scowled at the omnipresent gang of way-fare youth that skip school so they can hang out in waiting rooms playing screen (scream?) games at full volume. I watched a rambling parade of delusional VIPs shamelessly pacing and squawking into their phones.

Decades later, my turn came when a nurse appeared like the Ghost of Christmas Future and brayed, “MR. HO-O-O-RST-E-E-E-D?” I regained consciousness and approached her. “Welcome to the machine,” she stated with no irony, and not, unfortunately, to make a Pink Floyd connection that might melt some ice.

  • A quart of “a fine wine”

Today’s scans would first involve swilling two 16-oz bottles of tainted sugar-water in 60 minutes. An orderly took me to a men’s dressing room (so I could participate in a procession of other patients changing into hospital jammies while their entourages watched me warily). Mr. Orderly soon served as my bartender and told me to sip my toxic elixir “like a fine wine.” Except he said it like, “A fahn wahn.”

This time, having lived this movie before, I actually brought my own wine glass. The cheesy, cheapo kind that you can drop on cement and it won’t break but that I thought might break some ice on this long day. He was unimpressed. And just plain icy.

My poise was running low, as was my energy (since one must fast). And by now I was impatient as the hottest boy at homecoming. So I pushed back. “Fine wine? Really? I know a few things about wine. And I’ve never pounded a quart of fine wine in 60 minutes.” He was still unimpressed. I asked a few irrelevant questions of my own, trying to at least chip ice.

“Mr. Rheostat, Good Lor’, just drink the shi’. I’ll be back in an hour. And it betta be all gone, awright?” He gave a little eye-rolling chortle and shuffled off. Like I said, everyone was feeling stressed and testy. “Not a problem! I can drink like the best of them!” I shouted. He remained unimpressed and waved me off under distant fluorescent light.

Did I mention it was Friday. While normally a good thing, avoid major medical on Fridays. The staff is fried. Fry Day. Just sayin’.

  • Passing the tests?

The scan tests themselves were pleasant enough. Meditation training removes most fear of being stuck inside a large, noisy tube while The Voice of God tells you when you can and cannot breathe, move, etc. Heck, I’ve even fallen asleep in there—if they provide enough warm blankets—much to the dismay of the harried crew. “Mr. Horsted! Wake up! You’re twitching!” (“Oh, sorry, I was dreaming about an erotic party on a pontoon in an Iowa corn field…”)

As for the blood work? That’s more high-risk. And can take days to produce (sometimes inconclusive) results. This time, my nurse was a newbie who clearly had failed chef school. I’ll just leave it at that, except that to say that life brings scars. Wear them with pride, I say, like others show off drunken-weekend tattoos.

The results came in multi-media form, rather like a U2 concert but without Bono presiding to make it epic and awesome. A 3-page radiologist’s report hit the mailbox forthwith, riddled with big, intimidating words. A late-in-the-evening phone message from Dr. Zen that dysfunctional phone connections failed to fully capture. Meetings alongside doctors with seemingly hours looking at charts and images of my innards from thousands of angles. They always see “things” I don’t—tell me about stuff going on in there of which I’m unaware. They’re amazing.  Although I’m pretty sure I could beat them at cribbage.

  • The journey continues…

The best news is the tumor is not back. (Rah!) After that, things get more murky. Tests revealed some “things” they don’t like. So I don’t like them either. Thus, I get to continue my research for the book chapter called, “Adventures in Waiting Rooms,” enjoy some new test procedures, and expand my network of medical friends.

I’d love to belt out like Freddy Mercury, “Easy come, easy go, will you let me go?” And have 65,000 people sing along.

But instead, for now, I can do no better than to quote Forrest Gump: “That’s all I have to say about that.”

Life, sometimes, becomes a waiting room, for every one of us (you too) as we slog through uncertainty. As Grandma always joked, “Hurry up and wait!” Mom, meanwhile, still reminds us to “Pray for patience.”

Patience. Patience. I got this.

Thanks for listening…

PS Happy New Year! Here’s to one more run around the sun…

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A Beautifully Boring Birthday

Posted on: Friday, December 1st, 2017
Posted in: SoulTrain | 4 comments

At a certain age, one learns that the world no longer lines up to rock and revel on your special day. You may have to procure your own chocolate cake—or cupcake—or just order one at an eatery that ruins it with nuts and berries and a martini-high price-tag, yet it doesn’t compare to Mom’s (and by that I mean Betty Crocker’s).

As for surprise parties? The surprise may be having a party at all. And if so, that someone else does the planning. That a quorum shows up. And that somebody remembers the cake and gets it right. Chocolate. With chocolate frosting.

  • Whither desks, leaves, and bike rides

My birthday came and went with all the hoopla of a buffalo fart lost in dust in the wind. And I could hardly be happier. I logged some requisite desk time, yet the weak November sun strived its best to shed light on the metaphorical piles and melt away any SADness that November days can bring.

Than came raking. Leaf Mgt. With all the great labor-saving devices: The deafening leaf blower; the 16-ton mower; well-worn work gloves. Everybody hates raking. Me too. But on this day, it felt positively gratifying to send dust up my nose and strain my back.

After all, one year ago, that head was going through daily radiation and that nose barely functioned. My care team was emphatically anti-dust and, in fact, wanted me to wear a mask at all times. The body had no energy for yard-work—preferring beds, baths, and beyond. There was a fun, if spontaneous, party for me one year ago. But I suspect some folks showed up because, well, they worried I might be serving my last cake.

Exactly one year later, my kayak took me for an unseasonably warm glide featuring crashing through ice while my headphones blasted Ziggy, Phish and Mick. I sang along like nobody was listening. Because nobody was. I mean, who the hell else is lingering on an ice-laden lake on November 30?

My bike then raced through a robust westerly wind and logged its second-best timing ever on my favorite trail. The ladies who lunch-walk daily gave me that knowing smile, though I still don’t know what they think they know. The heavyset man with the old, black Lincoln was fishing again—within hours of the latest ice-out; he gave me his usual, serene nod and, as usual, looked like he was getting skunked and couldn’t care less. The mustachioed man who reads hardbacks on the bench in the woods was there too, and again resolutely ignored me as I buzzed by, still head-phoned and serenading.

The birthday’s evening festivities featured sushi with my daughter, and then time-killing in nearby bars between my two trips of chauffeuring her to and from the soccer dome. Even the bartenders didn’t give a rat’s ass that it was my birthday. Freebies? Zilch. Generous pours? Nope. Chocolate cake on the house? Not on your life.

  • The bestest gift

BUT. I got one pretty cool gift: Life. And I feel so much younger than a year ago. Oh sure, the day featured a doctor appointment, and we had to discuss my 555 upcoming tests that threaten to disturb today’s peace. But at this clinic, everybody knows my name. And Doctor Grace and I addressed the tasks at hand and then meandered amiably into wellness-reflection-personal stuff that left me feeling just great—and grateful to have relationships with savvy, kindhearted healers who say things like, “Kirk, you’re awesome!”

So heck yeah, I had an awesome birthday, never mind that the traditional booty was scanty—3 calls, 3 cards, some digital greetings, one hug, zero HB2U songs, and nary a crumb of chocolate cake. (Lest you think I’ve gone all softie on ya, that going cake-less part does sorta piss me off.)

Yet I suppose I’ve devoured dozens of cakes already. Anyway, who would have enough candles? And have I recovered enough to blow them all out?

Life goes on. LIFE! That impressively large (but, please, not yet old) number I turned today is quantifiable proof of life going on. And maybe, just maybe, as Phish (and I) sing, “I feel the feeling I forgot.

  • So let’s party?

Maybe I’ll even throw my own impromptu party again. Surprise! It’s warm this weekend, the full moon will rise over the lake, and the bonfire pit could use a warm-up. Maybe I’ll even head out to get that chocolate cake, damn it. With chocolate frosting.

Cake? We got this!

Thanks for listening…

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Happy Cancer-versary to Me!

Posted on: Tuesday, October 10th, 2017
Posted in: SoulTrain | 12 comments

What a long, strange journey it’s been! In fact, it’s been so long, so strange, that I no longer bristle when people refer to cancer as a “journey.” Or when people butcher Grateful Dead lyrics to sneak in another “journey.” My 1-year cancer-versary happened recently. Like most men celebrating an anni, I forgot.

So imagine my surprise when I came home to a mini-brownie with 1 candle at my front door. Who knew? A fine friend and fellow survivor, of course. He remembers a year ago when my head was exploding. But various things—a category-5 personal crisis, summertime seductions, brazen stupidity—kept me from seeking help.

I don’t know how I ignored the discomfort. And I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every time a caregiver said, “Man, you must have a high pain threshold!”

I disagree. Yet this gross growth had shoved my weeping, red eye socket out until I was seeing double. My face looked like I’d lost a bar brawl. The tumor had strained my septum almost to the point of breakage. And it lurked 1 millimeter from my brain. No wonder I had difficulty seeing, focusing, and executing a mean-ass cannonball into lakes.

Once doctors got ahold of me, they began marinating my carcass in poisons and steroids and rays. (Oh my!) The treatments quickly spilled into other details, too: work, family, social life, stamina, sanity, POV, the medicine shelf. Even for us Cancer Comedians, such challenges can confuse your sense of humor. As Nurse Deadpan quipped to me, “We are going to almost kill you to keep you alive.”

“Is that supposed to be funny?” I asked. “Nope. It’s just true,” she answered. “Well, I think it’s kinda funny,” I chuckled. She yawned. I thought that was funny too. There was some comfort in recognizing I was not her first cowboy.

Note to self (and you too): See the doctor sooner. Sure, it’s all in your head. Right? So it’s probably just another headache, cold, or infection. Then again, it could be a  terrible tumor shaped like a smashed grapefruit that wants to eat you up.

Speaking of eating… I devoured that mini-brownie like a toddler’s first birthday cake. It was so tasty, I ran out the next morning to buy a bin of them—and have been taking mini-browning mini-communion every day since.

  • It’s about time

Time takes on new meaning when you’re staring down death threats and losing your gorgeous hair. Time aphorisms attack. Time clichés taunt. Days feel sacred, even when they suck. You take on a superhuman bullheadedness and face all medical moments with the mantra: “Bring it on.

They did. Boy, did they. So I’m ridiculously relieved that this year has passed. Yet frankly, some mysteries linger like a bad hangover.

Like: Why do Minnesotans insist on leaving their vehicles running when they’re killing time in hospital (and other) parking lots? Why do people pay the big bucks to go to music and sports events and then stare at their phones? And… Why do well-meaning people say things like, “Lymphoma, huh? I think my uncle had that! Or was it lupus? Anyway, he died.”

Here’s another timely mystery about cancer and time: When, exactly, are you cancer-free? In my case, some say never; they say lymphoma never leaves, it just goes to the bathroom (in medical-speak: “goes into remission”). {To which I say: Whatever.} Representing a common perspective, one nurse told me, “You are one-year cancer-free one year after your first treatment.” To which I say: Nonsense. Try explaining that definition to the souls who didn’t survive one year.

To me, cancer-free might should be when you’ve finished all treatments, resumed some normal activities (eating steaks, drinking beer, swearing at bad drivers) and passed your first series of tests and scans with no evidence of The Bad Thing. For me, that was in March. So I had a party. Hey, must be time to plan the real one-year anniversary party!

There’s still time.

  • “That’s not you…”

One year later, discovery-wise, I must acknowledge my first oncologist, the dapper and strapping Dr. Rock N. Roll. Dr. Roll believed in sharing the truth, the whole truth, and all the facts, man. He could kill you with info that might morph into fear. So while I sometimes hated what he said, I liked him and his blunt manner. And those first days of learning about the condition—no matter what the message or messenger’s style—weren’t sugar-coated like mini-brownies. Period.

But bless his heart, Dr. Roll. When I was leaving the clinic after several other meetings during that long day, he spotted me walking in the hallway. “You leaving?” he smiled. “The building, yes. The planet? Not yet.” “Good, he offered, “May I walk you out? I’d like to talk to you.” Sure, I said.

Dr. Roll put his arm on my shoulder, spoke softly, and reeled off a whole new slew of info, stuff like, “You know all those odds and stats I told you? You need to hear it. But that’s not you. I’m just a doctor, and I barely know you. But I firmly believe that about a year from now, all this—and your other issues too—will be fading behind you. You’ll feel healthy again. You’ll be starting a great new chapter in your life. I’m sure of it.”

He shook my hand, gave me two Kleenex, and disappeared. I never saw him again.

I drove away, still seeing double (which came in handy, since I needed four Kleenex).

Dr. Roll was right. The future is comin’ on (is comin’ on is comin’ on is comin’ on). Mysteries and quandaries remain. But that’s life.

A year of life has passed. And, God willing, many more await.

Time. I got this.

Thanks for listening…

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“No Lymphoma” and “Pray for Rain”

Posted on: Saturday, August 12th, 2017
Posted in: SoulTrain | 6 comments

In the past weeks, those were the most profound words I heard. They also took me to highs and lows that I’ll likely carry for some time.

After surgery, now 3+ weeks ago, I was in recovery and floating between anesthesia-coma and uncontrollable yammering when Dr. Nostril appeared and stated, “No lymphoma!” We shared an emphatic double-high-five and I resumed my napping and babbling. Soon enough, pretty nurses were feeding me pop-sickles and I was stumbling home.

Surgeries. I’ve had a few. But then again, too many to mention. As procedures go, this one was easy. Headache, nausea, and other unpleasantries notwithstanding, I was (more or less) back in a new life state of mind in a matter of days. Best of all, I again got to find out that I’m cancer-free. Whooo-ie! That news is always right as rain.

  • The clouds thicken

Speaking of rain, the latest chapter in my cancer drama and trauma seems trivial already. Because last week, a dear auntie who was a second mother of sorts—I’ll call her Dear Auntie—passed away. She taught in elementary schools forever, loved to sing and sew and bake (the best sugar cookies ever), and cherished rural culture and nature. So she also loved rain.

I was blessed to be present and help out for some of her final weeks and days. Her goal was simple: To go home. Her care team embraced the challenge and everyone held that faith like a lucky locket. We are tough, feisty Scandinavians, and she hung on and fought fearlessly; I firmly believed she would make it home.

It’s one thing to endure your own suffering. But watching someone you love suffer? That’s much worse. Your own stubbornness becomes powerless, yet you feel every pang and strain.  You run out of tough.

  • The struggle for life

Life can throw nasty fastballs at your head and…everything changes. At this point in the summer, I’m usually in Okoboji enjoying a spirited vacation—after dropping the kids and their friends at a timeless, week-long camp. Instead, I was again in hospitals—reading to Dear Auntie and helping create plans full of hope, but also watching helplessly as promise turned to pain.

A chaplain stopped by on the morning we agreed to transfer her to another city with a noted specialty hospital for her condition. Chaplain put us at ease with her gracious and chatty ways. She was a Gustie, and I’m an Ole. So she sang me a jokey version of “Um Ya Ya” (St. Olaf’s fight song) and I wondered aloud…Will these Ole sneers and Iowa jokes ever cease? (Nope.)

Then she asked Dear Auntie if there were anything she’d like to pray for. After some thinking, Dear Auntie replied, “Healing, family, and rain.”

  • Turn, turn, turn

Dear Auntie was right: Much of the Midwest had gone dry and crusty—like over-baked cookies. As lifelong farm-stock, she was always in love with the land, the crops, the theater of weather, and the beauty of the seasons. “To everything there is a season” is more than a Bible verse and a song: It’s a way of life.

The day after we prayed for rain was muggy and gray. I drove from Sioux City to Lincoln to see her in her new facility, and later back again, watching river bluffs and dark skies that churned like distant smoke. Just after sundown, the sky turned black, resounding thunder cracked, and that long-awaited downpour with drops as big as marbles watered the crops and soaked the earth.

She took her final breath last Sunday morning. Her heart could do no more. So Dear Auntie is home now, even if it wasn’t the “home” we prayed for.

And yet the heavens sent rain. And it has rained many times since. Indeed, Dear Auntie’s most unselfish prayer has been answered. She would have it no other way.

Rain. We got this.

Thanks for listening…

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Floating on Perplexity & Paradise

Posted on: Monday, July 17th, 2017
Posted in: SoulTrain | 2 comments

So where were we? Oh yeah, the last sinus scans had blortzes. Which they called infections. So I took antibiotics. But that solved nothing. So now I have a date with The Claw. Surgery. They’ll scrape me clean and do biopsies with the scraps, which have now been labeled many things (though never scraps). Oh, the mysteries that lurk within our heads.

  • Comedy never sleeps

I trust all this is happening to me to provide me with fresh fodder for humor. Which is great, terrific, tremendous, and all that. Yet, to be honest, I’m struggling to find the funny in this development. I’ve resisted the urge to behave like a spoiled toddler and scream, “No! No! No! No! No!” But it could happen. That might be fun, if not funny.

My Care Team does their best to keep me amused. They vary their verbiage and set me up for smart-Alec responses with quips like, “Oh, this procedure isn’t that bad!” “Just stay positive!” and “Well, you look great!” I’ll spare you my comebacks. Until you’ve paid cover.

If a guy spent too much time reading into the spoken and/or body language of caregivers, that alone could mess up your head. So don’t do that. Pay no attention to the way Dr. Scribe averts her face at probing questions. Notice not when Dr. Nostril, from one week to the next, changes his qualifier that comes before optimistic.

If you should ask him about that that lingo change, avoid his eyes—as they might tighten up or lose their usual spark. When Nurse Nice hugs you on the way out, assume it’s because of the sweet bond created over the months, not because she Knows Something. And if Nurse Help-Me-Rhonda becomes even more chilly and harried, well, we all know what that is.

  • Crush on me

Nurse Help-Me-Rhonda has a crush on me. Anyone can see it. The way she squeezes that blood-pressure monitor until my arm turns blue. The tone of her voice when she says, “Lay down and let me check your…” The force with which she thrusts the tongue-depressor in my mouth and commands, “Say ahhhhhhhh.” Her slam of the door as if we’re having a fracas.

Anyway, it would be unprofessional. Not for me, I suppose. But her career is clearly on the rise—it’s obvious even in the ever-wilder colors of her scrubs. Not to mention that she’s, oh, younger. Much. So I’ve so far resisted the evergreen come-hither line, “Hey, I’m willing to overlook the age difference if you are…”

  • Summer soothes all angst

But I digress. As much as possible, of course. In summertime, it’s so much easier to tune out life’s responsibilities and cancer crap and find living-is-easy diversions: Lovely lakes; boating and floating; friends old and new; great grub and beverages of choice; excellent music.

In the same week, that music included taking a new generation to see jazz maven marvelous Marilyn Maye (90 years young!) in Okoboji’s Lakeview Room (where I once worked summers—with her!). And catching Queen (+ Adam) for the first time ever—well worth the 42-year wait.

But again I digress. Back at Reality, the surgery literature features lists of DON’Ts for after the procedure. Like, no swimming. For six weeks. Damn. By then, summer’s fading and so’s the water’s warmth. But is floating swimming? This aqua-linguist thinks not. So I shall float—whether alone, with loons, or with friends. I think it will help hasten recovery.

  • Sunny talk, slow talk, hard talk

When floating on fancy devices with neighbors yesterday, I particularly enjoyed the pace of conversation. It’s like the loons—warbling wildly, then stealth. Silent atop the water now, then disappearing into a long deep-dive. Sometimes the chatter flows fast. Other times, seemingly hours breeze by between thoughts gone aloud.

We caught up on lots of things, which these days can include health stuff. One has a newly torn meniscus. Another’s planning a knee replacement. One just got shots for pinched neck nerves. And then there’s my date with the Claw.

The fabulous new Harry Styles (yes, that Harry Styles) album wafted over the water. And we couldn’t help but tune in to killer lyrics like, “Just stop your crying; It’s a sign of the times…”

As if on cue, the neighbor on the big blue tube commented. “When we met 20 years ago, did you think we’d be sitting around all these years later talking about our ailments?” Pause. Then came a chorus of, “Nope.” She had the perfect response: “More Pinot Grigio?” There was no pause, and then a healthy chorus of, “Yes!”

Pour. Pause. Sip. Drift. Then the doctor in the group, floating on a ritzy, silver air-mattress, turned toward me and commented, “Sinus scraping? You’re gonna have a headache.”

“Yep,” I concurred. Pause. Slurp. “Already do.” Yawn. “Oughta get a nice nap out of the deal, though.”

  • “Have the time of your life…”

We floated and sipped and savored summer’s short-lived bliss, wishing it could last forever. But the bottle’s elixir evaporated, the sun slipped behind the oaks, and the talk turned to grilling supper. Everso gradually, in the slow motion of faraway waves, the float ended. For now.

Happily, Harry’s video features some epic floating, and the lyrics eventually shift to, “Just stop your crying; have the time of your life…” 

In between medical (and other reality-centric) disruptions, I am. And we are. On Minnetonka. On Okoboji. On Owasso. It’s such simple thing, floating. Yet sometimes it seems perfectly profound.

Floating. I got this.

Thanks for listening…

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Living with Buster, Kosmo, and *

Posted on: Monday, June 26th, 2017
Posted in: SoulTrain | Leave a comment

I’m happy to report that the recent tests show I remain cancer-free*. There appears to be no sign of The Bad Thing, which is swell.

Of course, there’s always a *  in life. And in my case, that * means infections in sinus areas where the cancer festered—and where they radiated me back to the stone age. So I’m eating antibiotics. And probiotics. And hoping those oxymoronic remedies flush it out and flesh it out back to “normal.” We’ll find out pretty soon via more look-see scans.

If the infection survives the horsey pills, then we’ll expunge it surgically with an instrument called The Claw. (“Oooooooh!”) And then do biopsies on the scrapings. Because good tumor treatment these days is conservative and aggressive. I know: more oxymorons. But one learns to live with that whole yin-yang, red-blue, dog-and–tail thing. Am I right?

  • The New Normal

People still ask, “So how are you feeling?” And I’m glad they do. “Great again!” is the answer, especially compared to the days of whine and ill noses. But “how do you feel” can be complicated. Because at this point, I’m not sure I know what “normal” feels like. All to say, I was not stunned that scans detected snags.

Neither was Buster—one of the voices that lives in my head. He can be a schmuck, but he suspected something was amuck. So he was barking things like, “Yo, Lump-Head…What’s up with those yucky side effects? Ish!”

Fortunately, Kozmo (the syrupy voice of uber-optimism) also lives in my head and has my other ear—and he he’s been singing, “Not to worry, my dear Kirk…cancer cures take sweet time to work. Tra-la-la …”

  • Partisan rancor in my head

The sparring continues. Sometimes day and night. Buster and Kozmo rarely reach consensus, and are not opposed to secret, closed-door sessions, filibusters, fake news, or snot-slinging. Here are just a few more examples of their recent spats…

  • About a possible encounter with The Claw

Buster: Oh that is so freaking cool! Up your nose with a rubber hose stuffed with a jackhammer, a camera and a Hoover all at once. O-o-o-pen wi-i-i-de!

Kozmo: Piece of cake, Kirkiepoo. It’s rather like a nice colon cleansing, but without all the unsavory prep and mess!

  • About the biopsy

Buster: Yeah, baby. This is better than Vegas! Bring on the fear, loathing, and poker faces. Place your bets!

Kozmo: Worry not, Yoda-Boy. The Zennies say enlightenment awaits at the end of the suffering path…along with rainbows and unicorns! And dollies and llamas!

  • About living with *

Buster: Say sayonara to certainty, Mushroom-Brain. You’re becoming a walking roulette table that’s losing its marbles!

Kozmo: Hark! What’s that bell I hear? Yes! It’s the alarm clock of courage awakening you to your divine, manifest destinies!

  • Executing a gag order

Good thing I have both parenting and teaching experience. Because these characters rarely rattle me. For long, anyway. I know de-escalation lines like, “Okay. Let’s just join hands and sing ‘Kumbaya.’” Or, “Am I going to have to separate you two?” Or if all else fails, “That’s it. I’m going to drown you both in craft beer with stupid names.”

  • But seriously…

Other updates. My cancer comedy career gets ever-closer to open-mic night. My rock&roll revival continues its practice when no one is watching. And I focus on summer fun and the advice of one 28-year-survivor Cancer Club friend who reminded me, “You never know how many days you have left, so don’t f*ck this one up!”

Being in the Club has, I hope, made me more sensitive and sympathetic to others’ ordeals. So I must note and send healing vibes to a dear friend “summering at the Mayo,” which is our code for his undergoing stem-cell transplants for bone cancer. To a dear relative recovering from major back surgery. To another about to undergo eye surgery again. And to one of my families who are grieving the loss of a 27-year-old jewel who passed in peace this month after a five-year fight with cancer.

I hope your health and wellness (and wealth and what-the-hellness) are doing well. And if you are living with Buster, Kozmo, and *, I trust you are making peace with them. Because summer is short, and, as Saint Neil sings, life is like a Frisbee: “This old world keeps spinnin’ ‘round; it’s a wonder tall trees aren’t layin’ down…”

Infections, voices, and songs in my head: I got this.

Thanks for listening…

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5.5 Songs that Cure Cancer, Part 1

Posted on: Saturday, June 10th, 2017
Posted in: SoulTrain | 2 comments

My Harpo-Meets-Eraserhead era has ended, or at least gone to the bathroom. It’s too hot for such. And despite some good coaching from curly women, I had a hard time mastering Kinky Management. My lovely stylist, CJ, laughed at my high-rise and went straight for the chain saw.

I’m a handful of haircuts (and a barrel-full of hair) past my chemo chapter. That can mean only one thing: It’s testing week. Yes, my esteemed care team will soon be filling me with nuclear fluids, inserting me into tubes, and sending cameras down my proboscis, among other not-cheap thrills. So I again reach out to you, my dear readers and friends, after what turned into an unplanned Blogging BreakAway.

This first clinical curtain call is new to me, and produces uptight stage fright. I’ve discussed my pre-testing anxiety with some of my team and other AdvisorZ. And they all had this advice: Yep. When I said to one, “I’m still learning to breathe again—I have no idea what I’d do if they told me bad news.” Sagely, he enquired, “What do you imagine you’d do.” I wiped my eyes, paused, and stated, “I suppose I’d put on my tough-guy, Iowa helmet and shout,

Let’s do this!’”

“Yep,” he replied. Is it any wonder we pay these pros the big bucks? So may I offer that same guidance to you for whatever might be freaking you out: Yep.

Meanwhile, this has become a most challenging post to write. Ain’t enough stool softener in Wal-Mart to make it come out. I began it in January—when on an island vacation. Now, the weather’s turned tropical here. In fact, the heat index may hit 110° (not %) this weekend, just in time for my daughter’s soccer tournament in sunny, progressive Wisconsin. Yep, we complain about the cold and the heat around here. It’s our MN Constitutional Right. And yes, we live in extreme, and may I add, anxious, times.

  • So let’s get right to the point, shall we?

Music saved my life. Countless times—and that was before I got sick. I really can’t imagine going through cancer without music. Oh, and grapes. I ate a lot of grapes.

So I share these songs because they brought vital light during the darkest of daze. And BTW, I know you’re not really going to listen. And that’s okay. It’s not your fault; it’s what the internets have done to listening and overall info overload since the days of, say, the 45, the LP, the sacred mix tape. We’re now so hyper and burnt out on stimuli that even a friend’s, nay—a master’s!—music recommendations become just more noise.

To that I can only say…Covfefe!

  • What were we talking about?

I must confess one rather embarrassing reason I’ve been unable to finish this bastard: Every time try to write, I watch these (and other) videos and become mesmerized. This, in short, is why I almost never watch my music. The coma hits like Cabernet+codeine. And then I lose whatever I’d imagined in my head—which was much more pure, more musical, more…magical. It’s just too easy to…watch.

Still, these are worth watching.

  • So let’s get right to the point, shall we?

Yes. Let’s dance.

If you can watch this and not smile, you need “a whiskey drink, a vodka drink, a lager drink, and a cider drink.” It’s got everything you need from a timeless, yet 20-year-old, Brit-kitsch hit, including booze idolatry and silly karaoke capers. If you had the profound pleasure of stopping by my Survivor Sing-Along party at Honey, the nightclub, you know I opened by playing along with this recording. In my mind, I was gigging with Chumbawamba. And you were my groupies.

Killer Lyric: I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down…

Justin Vernon, a local boy with humble and loyal roots from Eau Claire (where I am right now, though I can’t find him no matter how many bars I go to) fronts this brilliant band. He’s been internationally adored forever. And his come-out show some years back in Minneapolis had people weeping and raving. This hard-ass, wanna-be critic agreed, yet believed Dude had growing pains to endure and then much more to say.

Now he’s saying it. Mr. Vernon has been open about the demons and dramas that have caused him to seek family-cabin seclusion and cancel tours. That makes his shows even more extraordinary, and has also matured his material. Bless.

This performance comes courtesy of Jimmy Fallon. Can you believe they make this sound live? For 3m in a TV studio? And…20-some musicians. (No wonder the tours are intimidating!) Note how the band looks like a bunch of high school mates, because, well, many of them are. I love the reassuring little hug he gives a blown-away Jimmy at the end.

If I had $1 for every time I listened to this album during treatments, we could all go out for steaks and Napa Cab. In my new Porsche.

Killer lyric: I’m standing in the street now… And I carry his guitar…

Let’s go retro. After years of forgetting them and sniffing at their many reunion tours (dumb mistake), I dialed these guys up in the heat of last summer, just when the fan was hitting the shit. I felt like I was back in high school and fell in love again, Give me layers of guitars and huge harmonies any day—two things sadly shunned by today’s pop stars.

This 4.5 minutes of music is so excellent it makes me want to smash my instruments.

Killer Lyric: I have a ship and all her flags are a’flyin’… She is all that I have left, and music is her name…

Best. Breakup. Song. Ever? And—who needs chemo—how ‘bout about that hair!?! This NoCare boy is awesome, suave, and just plain prolific. 17 albums in as many years? More moods than Garbo and Brando and all the Greats? His choruses can keep you awake at night, while his voice makes anyone singing along deserve a slap.

Ryan was divorcing sexy star Mandy Moore when he made this powerful album —which only adds to the tension. So when he asks, “Do you still love me, babe?” We know her answer is, “Hmm, nah.” Hey, Mandy: Your loss.

Killer lyric: Why can’t I feel your love? Heart must be blind…

Beck. A man of mystery, hilarity, and exquisite irony. His following is cult-like, and I’m definitely snorting the Kool-Aid. He finally recently gave us a new song, with an album to follow, and then a hot-ticket tour in smaller venues at laughably low ticket prices. This vid shows that his ever-ready Hollywood posse makes sure we still get twisted characters, freeway dancing, and girls shaking booties. It’s like…Wow!

Killer lyric: Giddyup!

My cancer posts have featured one link at the end—always to a song that, if I may say so mice elf, fit the arc perfectly. I know you didn’t take the link bait. So I’m giving you another chance at this one. This video (a studio performance with gospel singers that will make you believe) was unquestionably the most inspirational song for me. Over and over.

I know I was blessed with great medical care. Yet I’m pretty certain it was music that cured my cancer.

  • So let’s get right to the point, shall we?

Music to wow the ears and cool the soul? We got this!

If you listen to these songs, and I so hope you do, well then,

Thanks for listening…

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Keep on Rockin’ in the Cancer-free World!

Posted on: Thursday, May 4th, 2017
Posted in: SoulTrain | 4 comments

In this cancer Afterworld, life is sometimes a b*tch, but often bliss. Blissy vibes happened the night I threw a spontaneous “Survivor Party & Sing-Along” at Honey, a pal’s suave nightclub. Scores of friends showed up. (They had to, or I’d kill them.) Honey’s sound system rocks, so I brought along guitars and did a short show of songs and stories and snickers and endeavored not to make a fool of myself. Friends sang (and played) along. It felt great.

As I wrote in my first cancer post, I’m the luckiest man in the world…because I have so many friends. 1,000 thanks, folks!

  • Reality, what a rush…

As one emerges from the blur and body slam of treatment, you peel back the fried & dried skin and open the burnt eyeballs and sense the neglected wreckage awaiting. Things like: Responsibilities. Relationships. Metaphysical laundry. The treatments stop and, ready or not, an impatient waiter presents a Reality checklist. The C card was wild for a while. But even the luckiest cardholder learns it won’t settle these tabs.

  • Survivor’s guilt and change

Atop the list sits a common psycho-cogitation: What did I do to deserve to win? I know several people suffering with cancer now, and acquaintances still tell stories daily of loved ones they’ve lost. Well, try not to think too much about survivor’s guilt, fear, or remorse. Don’t google it. Don’t google anything: It will just say you have cancer. But there’s some serious conditioning in order when transitioning from fight-fight-fight to taking victory laps.

Perhaps the Afterworld has parallels to post- 9-11, when everyone kept saying—with fervent voices and furrowed eyebrows—“Everything changed!” I was stymied then. And I’m baffled now. What, exactly, changed again? “Everything, man!”  Whoa. That’s heavy. I don’t even know what “everything” is. So, I’m working on that. I’m working on everything. It changed.

  • The “pristine” sinus report

The appointment agenda changed for sure, but it’s still jammy. Dr. Nostril’s camera still goes up the nose and we discuss that mysterious ecosystem. Last time, he loved what he saw—more than ever. “Pristine!” he proclaimed. He was probably ready to scoot me out of the exam room and move on to messier cases.

But being the journalist that I am who increasingly cares about his body’s adventure, I peppered him with a lightning round of Afterworld Q&A: “Doc, what about these dang headaches?” “Perfectly normal!” “My eyelid gets stuck and people think I’m winking.” “Might work wonders for your love life!” “The nagging cough?” “Common. Did you like steroids? We can set you up…” “No-o-o-! Just let me cough!” “As you wish, but it’d be a much smaller dose and you might enjoy mopping the carpet at 2 in the morning.” “About my nose. When I blow it, I still get…” “OF COURSE you do. Give it time. It’s like a fine wine…

Before departing, I mean signing off, we do need to talk about my hair. But it’s probably best saved for another post. Or thriller novel. For now, please know that it…changed. Really changed. It now redefines kinky. I mean, I wake up in the morning with a hair-ache. Mother Wren is back from Mar-a-Lago and checking me out nonstop.

Even Dr. Zen was shocked. Last time we met, he entered the room with his usual beaming smile, which abruptly fell into a painful frown. And—not in his usual, soothing voice—he muttered, “Oh my, your hair came back, but, but…it really…changed. I did not expect this.” He turned away and started rubbing his forehead. Nurse Parrot bolted from the room, perhaps to get him a stiff cocktail.

Not to worry, I’m seeking professional hair help. I’d show you a recent picture but, well, I doubt it would pass the new internet politeness protocols. So stay tuned…

Until then, get back to your mess, your lists, and your songs. And remember…We got this!

Thanks for listening…

*kh

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Conclusion: “NO EVIDENCE OF DISEASE”

Posted on: Thursday, March 23rd, 2017
Posted in: SoulTrain | 2 comments

I had The Tests of a Lifetime on Monday morning—ones that could determine your future and test your innermost commitment to cancer comedy. Did all those months of medical genius work…or not? They had said results might take a few days; the doctors would tell me all during upcoming appointments.

But instead, the call came early that very afternoon. In fact, I’d barely gotten home and hunkered down to start my stare-down with the clock.

So I was startled when the clinic number flashed on my cell. And yet, they never call with bad news, right? So I answered. And sure enough, it was Nurse Parrot. (I call her this because she delivers her statement, and if you ask a question, she repeats your question, and then repeats her statement and little more. That’s her role, and I’m always delighted to chat with her and challenge the protocol.)

Her line this time was, “Great news! No evidence of disease! Braaaaawk!” By now I should know better than to ask for more detail. Yet in my joy, I blurted something irrelevant, like, “Fantastic! But what’s your take on all this Russia hoo-ha?” And so she repeated, “Russia hoo-ha? Squawk. No evidence of disease! Brkaw-tooky-tooky!” We carried on like this for a few minutes—just so I could hear the news again.

When I hung up, I was alone and had no idea how to react. So I stared at the frozen lake and then did what any self-respecting, rugged survivor would do: I sobbed like a baby. Then I trudged to bed and collapsed in a fetal position under the covers and let physical and emotional exhaustion wash over me like a warm stream.

  • Doctors, doctors, give me the news

Over the next days, I met with 3 doctors and sought the information I had resolutely refused before—even when that had meant covering my ears and screaming like a mad monkey. I’m ready now. And as usual, the answers are complicated. They vary. The biggest bet of the week, naturally, was: What are the odds of a crappy sequel?

The first doctor gave one of those answers that makes you bang your head on the wall. She offered, “Good question. But I don’t have the numbers for your specific case.” Fair enough. Then, “Aw, what the heckers. Let’s just say, oh, hmmm, approximately…” And then she rolled some dice and stated a rather enigmatic range.

Dr. Zen, in the next meeting, uncharacteristically shouted a precise answer before I’d finished my question. I liked that number better. So I’m sticking with that one for now. And begging the Fates that Be to skip any sequels to this wretched movie.

  • Cosmic calm and ill winds

These experts are smart. And their body of research and information are staggering. Intimidating. Yet when you go through stuff like this—and we and our loved ones all will—you become at-one with a cosmic calm that C Club comrades often talk about. A peace that passeth all understanding. You also accept that there are moments, even weeks, when peace passeth like gas and turns into ill wind. Just plug your nose and hope, someday, for a sweet call. I get it, and I got that call.

Still, this news will take some time to set in. I half expect the phone to ring and Nurse Parrot to say, “More news: I was kidding! Kirky want a cracker? Kraaaawwwk!

With this rapturous report now in hand, what about the future? Now there’s a question for ya. Do I plan on decades or hold tight to the lessons of “Live for today?” I honestly don’t know. But I have…time…to figure it all out. Inasmuch as such is possible.

So meantime, I say Let’s Party! like it’s 2017 with whatever tomorrows remain. And may they be ridiculously, indulgently, absurdly, inexplicably, shamelessly, redundantly, and profoundly plentiful and pleasant. Yet may we also embrace the shrewd poetry of Professor Seger, “We’ve got tonight; who needs tomorrow?”

  • One page at a time…

Lest I get too cheeky, I must acknowledge the occasional starkness of this journey, which again hit me in clinics this week and reminded me to internalize the compassion lessons. At some point, I’d closed my eyes to the hairlessness. The emaciation. The wheelchairs. The heads in helmets. The families gathered around hating every minute yet praying for more. But for the grace of God…I could only say to myself, as I had from the start.

Truth is, I still need that grace. I’ve still got healing to do. Some numbers aren’t right yet. And my care crew will be monitoring me like a just-freed felon. I’m not sure I know “normal.” (Does anyone?) And this effing boomerang crud-virus comes and goes like the ice on the lake that thawed, refroze, and is now thawing again.

But as a friend said upon hearing my good news, “DUDE! Shut up! Crud? Schmud!?! You just kicked cancer’s ass!

Well, yes, I did. They did. WE did. (Thank you.)

I have a big, blank page that, every day, I’ll write things on with disappearing ink.

The future. I got this.

Thanks for listening…

*kh

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